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Only 11 percent of creative professionals come from a minority background. One in three New York City public schools lack an art room, and the same ratio of young people grow up without a mentor. These are the kinds of real-life statistics Free Arts NYC is trying to combat.
Through a variety of programs for youth from children to teens, Free Arts NYC helps to bring one-on-one attention, meaningful connections, and exposure to the creative world to arm them with confidence, communication skills, and problem-solving experience.
Whether through Saturday volunteer days, teen mentorship programs, or studio visits with artists like Lawrence Weiner and Scott Campbell, Free Arts NYC has now served over 32,000 young people.
Whitewall spoke with the organization’s founding director, Liz Hopfan, to learn more about the collaborative effort for change she hopes to foster in the creative community.
WHITEWALL: You had been volunteering at Free Arts in L.A. and then had the idea to bring it to New York. How did you first get involved with Free Arts in Los Angeles and what struck you about the organization there?
LIZ HOPFAN: I moved to L.A. to become a teacher. I was looking for a job and substituting, and I saw an article in the paper about places you can volunteer in L.A. Free Arts really struck me and I started to volunteer. Once I started, I really saw the impact the program had. I saw the lack of resources these kids had, the lack of adult role models and attention, and the need that was there. I taught in South Central L.A. and I found the same thing—I was the art teacher, the gym teacher, the computer teacher, everything. If I hadn’t done art, the kids wouldn’t have done art the entire school year.
I started Free Arts in New York because I really believed that the programs made a difference in children and families’ lives.
WW: Free Arts recognizes that there are changes that need to occur systematically. At the same time, you can address issues that are happening right now. You see yourselves as providing social and emotional coping skills to help younger people work through the challenges they’re currently facing.
LH: I’m always of two mindsets. I think there’s so much to be done. We’re here in New York City and there are so many talented people, so many philanthropic people, so much wealth. There’s also so much need. I would love for us to work more collaboratively. I find that as a fundraiser, we’re all competing for the same dollars. So, how can we work more collaboratively together?
And we do. Our kids are coming from community partners. We can, for example, serve 25 kids from the Department of Homeless Services who otherwise would probably be doing nothing on a Saturday.
WW: Can you tell us more about the one-on-one model you stick to? Why is that so key?
LH: Our motto has always been that we’re building life skills; we’re building confidence. All of our programs have a one-on-one model, and that’s super-important. That’s what makes us unique. Even at our Free Arts Days, you have 100 kids and you need 100 volunteers. To volunteer, you don’t have to have any specific training—you like art, you like kids, and you passed the background check. We’re going to give you kits and tools and things like that, and you’re giving that individual attention.
Our teen program is really important. We still have a one-on-one model where everyone has a mentor. Many have never been to The Met or the Guggenheim or Studio Museum. They’ve never been to these places that are free to students and ten blocks away from where they live.
WW: You not only provide something to do on a Saturday, you’re expanding younger people’s ideas of what a creative future could be. To work in the arts, there are more options than just being an artist. Tell me more about the mentorship side of Free Arts.
LH: We’ve been heavily supported by the creative community. I have all of this access, so we thought, let’s give the kids those opportunities. If I’m asking an artist to donate a work of art, how about asking him to have a bunch of kids at his studio to talk to him? And we’re trying to create more job training, opportunities, and exposure to creative fields.
For teens, we have portfolio mentorship, the museum and studio mentor programs, and the career-exploration internship program, which started last year. It’s about opportunities, access, and experience; to let them know that the creative field is a really wonderful place to work. You can make a living in the creative field.
I’m not encouraging kids to be artists, because I think it’s challenging. Getting these kids to know that they love something, they’re passionate and interested in this, and that you can make a living doing something that you love but also working in a professional environment where there’s opportunity for growth and for learning new things—I think that’s important.